Schubert: Symphonies No. 4 "Tragic" & No. 5 (SACD review)

Gordan Nikolic, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra.  PentaTone Classics SACD PTC 5186 340.

Did Franz Schubert (1797-1828) ever compose anything that wasn't totally engaging, most often delightful?  Yet in his lifetime he was forever in Beethoven's symphonic shadow, and while his chamber works were often in demand, hardly anyone performed his bigger-scale works.  Indeed, his crowning gem, the Symphony No. 9, didn't even get a performance until more than a decade after his death.

On this PentaTone disc we hear two of Schubert's most opposite symphonies, Nos. 4 and 5, with No. 4, which he called the "Tragic" symphony, all gloom and doom, and No. 5 among the most sprightly things he ever wrote.  They are sort of like Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in their opposing moods, even though in the hands of Gordan Nikolic and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, both of the Schubert pieces come off rather darkly.

Things begin with the Symphony No. 4, which Schubert described in part as "death, the grave, decomposition, judgement, and eternal rest."  Nikolic takes the composer at his word and produces a wholly dramatic statement of the work, the opening movement whipping up a storm of theatrical energy and everything following in close order.  Things are a little uncertain and off-kilter about the symphony, culminating in an ambiguous final movement that can't quite make up its mind if it wants to be exciting or somber.  Maybe it's excitingly somber.

The concern I have with Nikolic's interpretation of the Symphony No. 5 is that it should be, in contrast to No. 4, all bubbly and effervescent but isn't.  It's almost as slow and earnest as the Fourth.  Nikolic takes a very formal and serious approach to the music as compared with conductors like Beecham (EMI), Klemperer (EMI), Goodman (Nimbus), and Abbado (DG), who are far more lighthearted.  Maybe Nikolic wants us to see the more-staid connections between Nos. 4 and 5, but the connections seem nebulous to me.  With Nikolic, the opening movement of the Fifth seems too slow, overly relaxed, even slack; the Andante works better, liquid and sweet; the Minuetto oddly slows down again and could have had more bounce; and the final movement Allegro vivace, while livening up the proceedings a bit, remains pretty heavy.

No reservations about PentaTone's 2008 recorded sound, though.  It's mostly smooth and solid, the chamber orchestra sounding intimate, yet weighty when necessary.  The sonics are balanced slightly on the dusky side, not exactly thick but not quite as transparent as I'd like.  There's a strong lower-midrange response for foundation, if not much in the way of deep bass.  Overall, in regular stereo the sound is fairly clear and warmly realistic.   In SACD stereo it seems marginally brighter and more dynamic, but not by much.

If the coupling here suits you, the disc works.  Personally, I'd rather listen to any of the conductors I mentioned earlier in the Symphony No. 5, although Nikolic and his players are fine in No. 4.  Of course, if you're looking for multichannel sound, this hybrid SACD (or SA-CD as PentaTone are now calling the process) may be just right for you.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa